Coffee, coffee everywhere but not a drop to drink

Cecily Montgomery - Ecuador


February 23, 2014

In the States I was an avid coffee drinker.  Every morning I would take my to-go cup with me into my first class at school and it wasn’t until I had finished it that I would feel fully awake.  After school I would often treat myself to a twenty-ounce iced coffee that would help keep me up into the late hours of the night.

Over the summer these habits continued and I left for Ecuador, one of the world’s largest coffee exporters, excited for the high quality coffee I expected to find there.  To my disappointment and surprise, however, I found that Ecuador, despite its reputation for growing good coffee does not serve very good coffee.  In Quito I had stayed with a family who had hosted many foreigners before and thus were used to our strange habits of drinking this caffeinated beverage so there I did not notice this cultural difference.

As soon as I left the city things changed.  My first few mornings in Puerto Quito I was confused when my host family announced we were going to “tomar café” yet there were no sightings of my morning energy source. I later realized that here “tomar café” does not literally translate to “drink coffee” but instead is their way of saying, “have breakfast.”  When I told them that I’d like to have coffee with breakfast, they eagerly made me a cup of Nestlé’s Instant that tasted so far from what I was used to that I could barely choke it down while telling them that it was “muy rica.”   This phenomenon did not make sense to me.  I am literally surrounded by coffee plantations yet people here drink it so rarely and when they do, it’s always Nestlé’s Instant.

The first person I asked about the lack of coffee culture was my host mom who replied by saying that it was too hot for such a beverage.   When I asked her about iced coffee or “café con hielo” she laughed at the idea and didn’t believe me when I told her of its popularity in the States.  Still, I was unable to believe that the weather was the only reason so I decided to ask Darwin, the man who runs the chocolate farm/eco-lodge where I work and is one of the only Ecuadorians I know who drinks real, Ecuadorian coffee.  He told me that imported instant coffee actually costs more that what’s produced in Ecuador but people choose to buy instant because of how it’s marketed. When I asked him why most Ecuadorians don’t drink much coffee in the first place (even instant) he, like most people I asked, lacked a reason.

I remained baffled by this cultural difference until I came to a realization.  People here don’t drink coffee for the simple reason that it’s not part of their culture anymore than eating rice with nearly every meal is part of mine.  I am from a place where coffee is so ingrained into the daily lives of so many that I had been to unable to imagine a place where it wasn’t.  Now I understand that the lack of coffee here is an example of how U.S. culture is not universal but instead a culture that a small minority of the world’s people are part of.  I had been a narcissistic American, assuming that there had to be a complex reason as to why not everyone lives the way I do. Sure, the fact the coffee is an unnecessary luxury item that many people here might not have money for is probably a contributing factor for its lack of popularity but the main reason remains that it’s simply a cultural difference between the two places—not good or bad but simply a difference.

I still miss my favorite beverage though now I have learned to function without it (the first weeks here I found myself dozing off with headaches in the morning).  And I know that I will have lots of high quality Ecuadorian coffee waiting for me when I get back to the States.

Cecily Montgomery